Movement, Active Learning, and Engagement: Boosts Content Knowledge and Literacy Skills

As I prepare for my first “Movement and Active Learning” conference I reflect on the 9-year journey with this work. It all began when my late sister, then head of education and writing at The Second City Training Center in Chicago suggested that improv exercises could be used as teaching tools for students. I jumped at her suggestion and after piloting a workshop or two with teachers, we knew that her hunch was right. 

The teachers who participated in those early “fact-finding” improv workshops helped my sister and me to understand just how far reaching Viola Spolin games like Zip-Zap-Zop or One Word Story could develop content knowledge and literacy skills. Rob Chambers, the President of The Second City Training Center, supported and encouraged our work as we discovered the deep connections between improvisation and learning.  We found:

  •  Students loved the movement and creativity when they participated in improv activities
  • Teachers found limitless connections between learning and improv. This is still very true today when I conduct workshops and present at conferences on this work.
  • Students with special needs fully participate and improv builds inclusive classrooms.
  • Improv develops literacy skills in vocabulary, sequencing, inferencing, and reflective analysis of text.

There are more connections but I think that these are the most important. When I present at conferences and schools (most recently at the Association for Middle Level Education and Chicago Shakespeare Teacher Workshops), educators respond with tremendous enthusiasm and share that the activities are easy to implement. 

I hope that you will be able to join me and my colleague, Liz Krane at our one day Movement and Active Learning conference on December 9th to learn more!

Movement & Active Learning Conference in Chicagoland

The evidence is clear: K-12 students have to move to really engage in learning!

Creative and improvisational exercises, kinesthetic learning activities, imaginative play, and mindful pauses help develop interdisciplinary literacy skills and content knowledge. They also boost skills that are crucial for student learning – skills like: listening, teamwork, self-regulation, communication, idea-generation, vocabulary, and more.

No wonder this is my most popular conference topic!

Join me and my colleague Liz Krane on Friday, December 9th for a full-day PD conference in Countryside, IL. Download the brochure here; read more details and register here. Come alone or bring your friends. We’re going to have a great time – and everyone will go back to their classrooms on Monday with practical skills they can put to use right away!

Send me a message if you have any questions about the conference or need help registering. I'm looking forward to seeing you there.

EF Explore America Sponsors My Session at AMLE!

I want to give a huge “shout out” to EF Explore America for sponsoring my session Active Learning and Improv in the Classroom to Boost Skills and Content Learning at the Middle Level Education Annual Conference last week. During the session we addressed how improvisation exercises and active learning not only are a great way to teach content, but also boost crucial skills for student learning – skills like: listening, teamwork, communication, idea-generation, and vocabulary development. The participants were incredibly enthusiastic and we had a BLAST. Visit my Facebook page videos to check out a video clip from the session!

Movement and Creativity Matter for the Development of Literacy Skills and Content Knowledge

I just returned from a whirlwind trip (Chicago to Orlando, FL to Fort Smith, AR to Boston, MA to Helendale, CA to Austin, TX and back to Chicago!). It was easily one of my crazier adventures but well worth the effort since I got a chance to meet so many inspiring colleagues.

On this past trip, I presented my work on improvisation at my Reading2Learn conference as well as the Association for Middle Level Educators Conference (AMLE). The comments and feedback that I received – from fellow teachers and their students – were both exciting and inspiring.

For example, one teacher who attended my Reading2Learn conference indicated that successfully she used the improvisation game “Pearls on a String” with her middle school students the next day as a method for teaching them about outlining for their research paper project.

I received an envelope of letters from 5th grade students at Miami Country Day School who made comments such as, “When you told us to create something like a hurricane, I had to really think about what parts were in a hurricane and what was most important.”

Another student wrote, “I loved doing improv. It was fun, but not easy. I really had to use my brain.”

And, “I love drama but I never thought that I could use drama to learn. That’s really cool.”

It is really cool when students are given the opportunity to create, move and engage in fun and meaningful ways!

Stay tuned for my next blog post where I will feature a video from AMLE that demonstrates many improvisation games. And keep your eyes open for information about my upcoming December 9th conference on movement, improv, and creativity in the classroom. Registration will be open to all and I’d love to see you there.

How is this for a Crazy Idea?

I had just returned from presenting at the Learning and Brain Conference on Creativity in Teaching and Learning when I received a call from Jenny Knight, the director of the Lower School at Miami Country Day School. Two of her teachers had participated in a workshop that I conducted using improvisation in the classroom to develop literacy skills and content knowledge. “We would love to have you at our school and teach the faculty about using improvisation in the classroom,” Jenny announced. As we discussed the professional development, Jenny mused, “How is this for a crazy idea?” As soon as she asked the question, I knew I found a kindred education spirit.

Jenny proposed that we teach parents some improvisation games on Back to School Night. As a mother I had always experienced Back to School Nights that were more informational sessions than showing me what my children were actually doing in the classroom. I thought it was brilliant, especially given the Miami Country Day School environment in which creativity, collaboration, and student centered learning is paramount. Jenny, her colleagues and I plotted and planned. We decided to teach three improvisation games to the parents. The teachers would model the games, then the parents would play the games, and we provided opportunities for curricular applications. Imagine a gymnasium with 200 parents and teachers all playing improvisation games like Zip-Zap-Zop, Alphabet, and Parts of a Whole. These games promote conceptualization of complex ideas. There was laughter and engagement in a community that not only espouses creativity and collaboration, but practices it.

The teachers lead the parents in a game of Zip-Zap-Zop (Miami Country Day School 2016)

The teachers lead the parents in a game of Zip-Zap-Zop (Miami Country Day School 2016)

Parents listen to instruction for Improv in the Classroom activity (Miami Country Day School 2016)

Parents listen to instruction for Improv in the Classroom activity (Miami Country Day School 2016)

All Great Teaching Begins with “Yes…AND”!

For the past two days I have been fortunate enough to work with teachers and students in the Lower School (grades Pre-k through 5th grade) at Miami Country Day School. After a professional development day that focused on using improvisation games in the classroom (based on my co-authored book, The Second City Guide to Improv in the Classroom) I was able to teach some of the games to teachers. I always relish the opportunity to spend time in classrooms. Being in classrooms with colleagues and students is exhilarating (and a bit exhausting). Armed with a full schedule of classroom visits, I ventured to witness the Miami Country Day School Vision in action. Here’s what I saw:

It is absolutely amazing to me how improvisational activities have limitless applications for teaching and learning. For example, the game “Parts of a Whole” (for a description of the game, see below) focuses on complex cognition, identifying and representing details, and visualizing ideas. The students also learn about collaboration, listening to each other and following directions. Not only are these skills important for academic success, they contribute to the development of a well-rounded individual. As I played “Parts of a Whole” with students, my beliefs were confirmed.

In the preschool classroom, the students created different animals. We broke down the elements of the game into the smallest chunks. For example, as we prepared to create a cheetah, we identified the different parts and how we might physicalize them. I especially loved one preschool student who thought that our cheetah should have a t-shirt. With the older students, we created animals, life cycles, hurricanes, and more.

Parts of a Whole

From The Second City Guide to Improv in the Classroom. Katherine McKnight and Mary Scruggs, Jossey-Bass, 2008


In this exercise, students work together to create a variety of locations, objects, animals, machines, or anything else they can dream up.

Skills are developed in listening, team building, self - awareness, self-confidence, critical and creative problem solving, and idea generation.


·      Invite six to ten students into a back line.

·      The teacher and the audience select something to create.

·      One student steps out of the back line and announces what part of the whole he will become.

·      The student becomes that part with his whole body.

·      The next student steps out and announces what part she will become.

·      She adds onto the whole by becoming her part.

·      The exercise continues until all students have stepped out of the back line.

·      Optional add-ons:

o   Brainstorm the parts of the whole before the exercise begins. This is particularly helpful for English language learners and younger children. It aids in vocabulary building and conceptualization of the final object.

o   Let the audience provide the parts; the students on stage simply embody them.

o   Once the whole is completed, ask the students to put it into sound and motion (for example, a car revving up and moving forward, an elephant roaring and swinging its trunk, a tree rustling and swaying in the breeze, or other ideas).


Teacher: We need any kind of thing to create here. What do you want to see?

Audience member: A computer.

Teacher: OK, we’re going to make a computer.

Davis: I’m the computer.

Teacher: Which part?

Davis: The computer part.

Teacher: The monitor, where you see the picture?

Davis: Yeah.

Teacher: OK, Davis, be the monitor.

(Davis stands as the monitor, hands at sides.)

Teacher: What shape is that computer screen? Can you show us?

(Davis makes a square shape with his arms.)

Kara: I’m the keyboard.

(She sits on the floor and sticks her hands out, mimes typing.)

Teacher: Are you the keyboard, or the person typing at the keyboard?

Kara: Oh! I’m the keyboard.

(She lays down flat on the floor.)

Samara: I’ll be the mouse.

(She sits on the floor next to Kara.)

Jim: All the parts are taken, now.

Teacher: We have the monitor, the keyboard, the mouse; what else can be part of this computer?

(Students left on the back line are blank.)

Teacher: Can some of the parts have parts?

Jim: Oh! I ’ll be the screensaver!

(He stands behind the square Davis made with his arms and wiggles his hands.)

Teacher: Great! What else?

Side Coaching:

“Work together!”

“Show us what that looks like!”

“What part is connected to what we already see?”

“What ’ s missing?”


It might take a while before students are comfortable physicalizing the parts.

As they grow more secure with the exercise and each other, they have more fun embodying the parts. Their work also becomes more specific.

If students are really struggling with the concept of physicalizing the parts, jump in and model physicalization for them; then step out and let them do it for themselves.

To learn more about using creative play, kinesthetic activities and using improv games in the classroom, see the book The Second City Guide to Improv in the Classroom.

Creativity and Improvisation in the Classroom: Resources!

The mindset regarding creativity in the classroom is changing. This year, I am receiving many more requests on providing professional development for improvisation as a tool for teaching and learning.  Throughout my professional life, I have always been interested in the role of creativity in the development of literacy skills and content knowledge. Yet, when my late sister, Mary Scruggs and I developed the work that is featured in our co-authored book, The Second City Guide to Improv in the Classroom, we were often asked how this work would prepare students for “the test”.  It was frustrating. Creative thinking and problem solving prepares students for EVERYTHING, including taking “the test”.

I am relieved that there is renewed interest in creativity in the classroom. Just in the past couple of weeks, I have taught teachers at Miami Country Day, Logan School, NM, and Berkeley County Schools, SC. Here are some resources to get started with improvisation in the classroom.


Improv in the Classroom with Dr. Katherine McKnight
Rachel from EF Explore America asks Katie about her views on experiential education and improv in the classroom. This blog post if the first in a series of three. (13 November 2013)

Incorporating Improv in the Classroom
This is the second post in the series. In it, Britt from EF Explore America asks Katie about how she got started using improv in the classroom and why it is so beneficial. (15 November 2013)

Build a Lesson Plan Using Improv in the Classroom
Britt from EF Explore America discusses improv in the classroom with Katie. This blog posts links to two downloadable excerpts from Katie’s book The Second City Guide to Improv in the Classroom. (18 November 2013)

Remembering to Laugh and Explore: Improvisational Activities for Literacy Teaching in Urban Classrooms
In this article, published by International Journal of Education & the Arts, Dr. Katherine McKnight and co-author Katy Smith focus on The Second City Educational Program (TSCEP). This outreach program pushes back against factors that have constrained arts instruction and integration while recognizing that schools have limited resources. Available for PDF download. (25 March 2009)

Flipped Learning #60: Improv in the Classroom with Katie McKnight
This podcast from the Flipped Learning Network Show finds Katie and Troy Cockrum discussing how teachers can use improv games in their instructions, how to use it to meet Common Core State Standards, and how to build classroom community. (17 September 2013)

The Second City Guide to Improv in the Classroom: Using Improvisation to Teach Skills and Boost Learning by Katherine McKnight and Mary Scruggs
The Second City, that groundbreaking school for improvisational performance, has also trained thousands of educators and students through its improvisation for Creative Pedagogy program, which uses improv exercises to teach a wide variety of content areas and boost skills that are crucial for student learning: listening, teamwork, communication, idea-generation, vocabulary, and more. The scores of ready-to-use exercises offered in this book can be used to teach a wide variety of subjects – including language arts, math, science, and social studies – as well as to build classroom community and develop cooperative learning skills. All of the lessons are linked to current national standards for the United States and Canada, and have been proven particularly effective with kinesthetic learners and students with attention difficulties. Available at booksellers nationwide or directly from the publisher.

All Great Teaching and Learning Begins with the Concept, “Yes…And”

As I teach and learn from the super AWESOME teachers at Miami Country Day School today, I thought it would be a good idea to pull a blog out of the archive.  The following was originally posted by EF Explore America.  They believe in the impact of experiential learning and often invite me to present at their Teacher Appreciation events.  In the evaluation forms, the teacher participants often inform us that the workshop is incredibly valuable and that they can immediately take the techniques and apply them to the classroom! 

Improv as Part of Content Area Curriculum
November 13, 2014

You don’t have to be an expert to start using improvisation in your classroom. And your students don’t have to be professional performers. One of its greatest values comes from students’ attempts at mastering one of the basic tenants of improvisation – which actually looks a lot like the one of the basic tenants good classroom citizenship! This, in turn, prepares them for learning and positions them to accept content information.

I’m talking again about the “yes, and” technique.

When an improviser uses the “yes, and” technique, he accepts whatever his improv teammate says and then adds to it. For example, in an actual improvisational exercise, if I handed an invisible ball to my partner and said, “Here, have an apple.” my partner might say, “Thanks,” (acknowledging that the invisible ball is an apple and thereby implying “yes”) “and look! That rhinoceros wants my apple!” (adding an “and” plot twist, in this case a hungry rhino, to the improvised story). The action of improvisation depends on this “yes, and” procedure repeated over and over again. Can you imagine how the exercise would grind to a halt if my partner looked at my pretend apple and said, “That’s not an apple, you’re just holding your hand funny”? Or, “apples are stupid.” Imagine he took my pretend apple, said, “Thanks for the apple,” but didn’t bother to add to the story. The improvisation would collapse.

Teachers who have incorporated improvisation into the curriculum have benefitted by seeing their classrooms evolve into places where participation is more highly valued. As comfort with the “yes, and” element of improv becomes part of a classroom’s nature, peers aren’t mocked as frequently, and new ideas are less likely to be rejected out-of-hand.

I’ve talked before about the One Word Story game (see page 79 of The Second City Guide to Using Improv in the Classroom by Katherine McKnight and Mary Scruggs, Jossey-Bass, 2008). But what does it actually look like in practice?  Here’s an example of a One Word Story that 9th grade students in a physical science class might tell about the role of electrons in an atom. Remember, in this exercise each student adds only one word to the story. They have to accept the story as it exists so far (yes), then add one word of their own (and).

The teacher starts:
The electrons in an atom…

Taking turns, the students add words one at a time to complete the story:
…are the things that circle around the middle of the atom and that part is called the nucleus. And the electrons are very very very small and can jump around to other atoms sometimes. And that is called ions.

And here is an example of a story that 5th grade students might tell as their class prepares for a day trip to New York City:

The teacher starts:
The Statue of Liberty…

Taking turns, the students add words one at a time to complete the story:
…is on New York’s Liberty Island. And it is the statue of a woman who is the Roman goddess of freedom. She came from France and that is because France helped us win the Revolutionary War and got us away from England.

The One Word Story exercise develops the following skills: listening, focus, oral communication, team building, self-confidence, and critical and creative problem solving.  By using the exercise as part of content review, the teacher reinforces lesson content.

Using the improvisational game this way uses only about five minutes of precious classroom time; it provides one more opportunity to include literacy development in a content area class; and it helps convert a classroom of disparate students into a team of learners. It’s what I call a win-win-win.

Ya Gotta Move to Learn, and a Sister’s Legacy

I am on a flight, heading to Miami Country Dayto teach a full day of Using Improvisation in the Classroom for Teaching and Learning.  Any opportunity that I have to share this work, I’m grateful.  The value of improvisation for teaching and learning is tremendous.  Improvisation unleashes creativity, problem solving, develops literacy skills and content knowledge, all through a highly kinesthetic experience.

Although we know the increasing importance of movement in learning, I still witness many classrooms where students sit and listen to the teacher direct the entire class.  We just don’t learn well through when teaching is largely delivered through teacher directed auditory instruction.  It just doesn’t work well. 

About eight years ago, my late sister, Mary Siewert Scruggs, and I knew that we were “on to something”.  (Mary was the Head of Educational Programs and the Writing Program at Second City in Chicago).  Mary and had many discussions about the potential impact of improvisation in the classroom.  We ventured out, with the support of the Second City Training Center, and worked in classrooms in Chicago.  Our professional expertise was the perfect intersection: improvisation and literacy.  It turned out our hunch was right on target.  Our research (with our tremendous collaborator, Katy Smith, Ph.D) was published in The International Journal of Arts in Education and you can download the article here:

Mary and I also co-authored The Second City Guide to Improv in the Classroom, a resource that explains the connections between improvisation and learning.  There are also lesson plans that incorporate featured improvisation games and exercises.

I am always tremendously grateful when I am able to spread my sister’s legacy.  Mary is well known in the Chicago theater community but she also made an impact on children in schools.  Here’s to “Yes….and” Mary.